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We must celebrate curiosity and creativity and make them the beating heart of our classrooms, says Cressida Cowell...
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When I was a child I wanted to be magic. Why? I think, essentially, because children often feel powerless. A child has to put up with constant tellings-off and bossing-about – where they go, what they eat, when they go to bed. All are decided by parents, relatives and teachers who are larger, more powerful (and hopefully wiser, but not always) than they are.
One of my favourite characters in my new series, The Wizards of Once, is the Enchanted Spoon that is owned by the lonely girl hero, Wish. When my daughter Maisie was about five, she invited a friend over for a playdate.
This tiny little girl rushed in, took a swift look around, then ran over to the sideboard where there stood a couple of blue candlesticks.
She lifted one over her head, and in a very high squeaky little voice shouted: “THE CANDLESTICKS OF POWER!” Maisie did not hesitate. She did not ask any awkward questions, such as, “What on earth are you talking about?”
She too rushed over and picked up the other candlestick and shouted back at her: “THE CANDLESTICKS OF POWER!” And they were off for the next three hours, running around the house, shooting spells and making up some elaborate magical game.
Children are inherently curious, questioning and capable of extraordinarily original pathways of thinking. And this ability to think creatively is something that we sometimes lose as we get older.
For me, magic is synonymous with childhood, creativity and originality. And we need that magic; we need the people of the future to be, if anything, more creative than they have been in the past. The world faces a lot of problems, and to quote Einstein, ‘No problem can be solved with the same consciousness that created it’.
Creativity is vital, both for children personally – the positive impact on mental health, for example, has been proven – and for us as a society. The creative industries made £92 billion a year for the UK in 2017; we literally cannot afford to ignore what creative talent gives us.
Even for children who chose to pursue other careers, creative thinking is at the bedrock of success: we need creative scientists, politicians and teachers.
One of the reasons I enjoy visiting primary schools and talking to children is that I almost always get an original question or a new way of looking at something. We need to encourage and celebrate that curiosity and enthusiasm while kids are young.
I’ve been an ambassador for the National Literacy Trust for over a decade, and I know that the quest to get kids reading and creating is a complicated, wonderful, frustrating, heartbreaking, fascinating and worthwhile task.
I love a quest though, and this one is especially imperative. A study from Read On Get On estimated that if every child left primary school with the reading skills they need, our economy could be £30 billion bigger by 2025 – an incredible statistic.
If we want our country, our children, to thrive, the joy of reading and creative thinking must be at the heart of education, home life and the decisions we make at every level, from the national and political to the everyday and personal.
This is why, with the National Literacy Trust, I have launched Free Writing Friday, an initiative which is purposely design not to be time-consuming or complicated. The idea is this: children should have a notebook to draw and write in just for the fun of it and be given time to use it. I’m suggesting 15 minutes every Friday.
Teachers aren’t allowed to correct this notebook – both for the kid’s sake and the teacher’s. I’m not suggesting more marking. Spelling, grammar or neatness do not matter; it’s a place for ideas and fun.
Stories, comic strips, ideas for video games, even copying down stories from other authors – whatever the kid wants. I launched the initiative in May and we’ve had an incredibly positive response.
I started writing and drawing when I was very young, and I’ve kept notebooks ever since. I make a point of telling kids that some of the story ideas I had about Vikings and dragons aged nine eventually became the How to Train Your Dragon book and film series. I still keep notebooks now – for The Wizards of Once I kept a big A3 scrapbook for five years.
Another gift that creativity and books give is empathy. I love films, but things that happen on a screen happen ‘over there’, whereas in a book they happen inside your head. You can be given endless history lessons on WW1 but when you read a book you are poor Private Peaceful walking out to the front.
There has been an enormous amount of research conducted to show how reading can help the development of empathy. One of my favourite quotes is from the book To Kill a Mockingbird: ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’
The How to Train Your Dragon books are filled with scenarios in which characters are forced to see the other person’s point of view. I wanted to explore this theme further in The Wizards of Once, which is why Wish and Xar are from opposing tribes: they are forced into exploring why their respective families don’t get along.
So, as a writer you are forced into your characters’ heads. How are they feeling? Why? Why do some characters clash, and how can they overcome it? How and why does a character defy an accepted truth of their world? This is another reason why it’s so important for kids to be encouraged to free write and draw – the results can be much more than what appears on the page.
In The Wizards of Once: Twice Magic, I wanted to emphasise that creativity also gives us power because we can apply it to our decisions and actions. The magic that the main characters Xar and Wish have, that we all have, is the imagination to think beyond our parents, even our whole world, to write our own story. We can choose what we want that to be.
Cressida Cowell (@cressidacowell) is the author-illustrator of How to Train your Dragon and The Wizards of Once series, as well as the Emily Brown picture book series, illustrated by Neal Layton. Emily Brown and Father Christmas publishes this October. Find out more about Free Writing Friday here.
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